We believe. And so do I.

Among the sundry tasks with which my new assignment presents me is overseeing the transition to the new translation of the Roman Missal in the parishes of the Rosebud Reservation.  The transition here promises to be rather smoother than in other places, at least in part because the people here do not seem to have as many ideological hang-ups as their sibling Christians in certain other locales.  And many, particularly elders, already have experience praying in another language—Lakota—which gives them intuition into the reasons behind the change.  As a lay cantor who participated in a workshop on the new translations explained to me a few weeks ago, “Lakota is a very spiritual language, and we understand that when we translate into English something gets lost.”  The new translations are simply an attempt—imperfect, like all human endeavors—to recover a bit of what has been lost.

Among the complaints I’ve heard about the new translations from other sources is the objection that changing the Creed’s “We believe” to “I believe” diminishes the communal nature of the Mass.  In some ways this is a strange objection, since the Creed’s first line is one instance in which the 1973 translation simply gets the Latin wrong, something obvious to anyone celebrating Mass in another of the major modern languages, which correctly translate “Credo” into the first person singular.  Given that the 1973 English version is the outlier in this instance, there’s something self-defeating in defending a supposedly more communal word that in fact puts a distance between English speakers and the rest of the international Church.

Given the nature of the Creed as a carefully calculated statement of faith, it’s critical that its language be precise, even in little words.  James V. Schall, S.J., has argued that the shift from “We” to “I” forces each one of us to take a personal stand, to make a firm affirmation of our ancient apostolic faith, something particularly important in the relativistic intellectual climate of our day, which often makes it difficult to claim belief in anything.

It is also important to remember, despite all the hullaballoo in the Catholic media, that whatever translation we use, our faith tells us that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the liturgy.  And it’s equally important to remember that the Holy Spirit is cleverer than we are, though you might not always know it from the editorialists.  This is certainly why the Second Vatican Council, in no uncertain terms, declares that regulation of the liturgy depends “solely on the authority of the Church” and “therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (SC, 22).

I believe that as we come to pray—instead of debate—the new texts of the liturgy, the Holy Spirit will speak in ways that even the translators of the Missal themselves could not have anticipated—which brings me back to “I” and “We” and the subtle movement between singular and plural that occurs throughout our communal prayer.

When I began praying the Liturgy of the Hours as a Jesuit novice, I noticed something interesting about the way the prayers began and the way they ended.  There are two ways an Hour can begin:

Lord, open my lips.

—And my mouth will proclaim your praise.

or

God, come to my assistance.

—Lord, make haste to help me.

Notice that both openings are in the first person singular.  The Hours are meant to be prayed in common, so it is not as though these phrases are in the singular because they’re designed for individual recitation.  Indeed, when we pray the Liturgy of Hours we are praying with all the Church throughout the world (and in heaven) even if we’re the only person in the room.

The “my” and “me” in the liturgy’s opening should draw our attention to something important, something which comes into clearer focus when we see how the Liturgy of the Hours concludes.  It can conclude either with a final blessing, like at Mass, or with one of the following:

May the Lord bless us,

protect us from all evil

and bring us to everlasting life.

—Amen.

or

Let us praise the Lord.

—And give him thanks.

or

May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.

—Amen.

You’ve probably noticed the difference:  we begin in the first person singular, but we end in the plural.  In other words, something changes during our prayer.  In fact, I would argue that something changes because of our prayer:  all those individuals calling out to God for assistance become a “We.”

And think about how such a dynamic emerges in the new translations.  The Creed stands at the end of the Liturgy of the Word and the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  It begins with an individual affirmation of faith.  And how does the next major prayer we all recite together begin?

“Our Father.”

The subtle shift from “I” to “Our” tells us that something important has happened in between.  Somewhere in the Eucharistic Prayer, somewhere in the Paschal Mystery, a new identity emerges, a new people who dare to call God “Father” is formed out of those who dare to seek and affirm the truth.

I could draw out the implications of this shift at greater length, but perhaps it’s best to leave it for each one of us to ponder.  And perhaps we might even ask ourselves, especially at those times we’re tempted to complain about our brothers and sisters in the Church:

What is it that comes between “I” and “Our”?

AL, SJ

8 Responses to We believe. And so do I.

  1. Tony — Many thanks for your post; I found it a very informative and enjoyable read. Honestly, I hadn’t thought of the connection with the Liturgy of the Hours before, very interesting!

    Regarding the Creed, especially at Mass, I admit that the new translation’s “I believe” is clearly a more accurate translation of “credo.” However, it seems that using “credo” puts the text of the Mass in an odd sort of tension with the description of the role of the Creed laid out in the catechism.

    Catechism no. 167 lays out the “I believe” (which it seems to imply is exclusively for the Apostles Creed) is for individual professions of faith, such as Baptism. The statement “We believe” (which it seems to imply is the correct rendering of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed used at Mass) is for “the faith of the church expressed by Bishops assembled in council or more generally by the liturgical assembly of believers.”

    I certainly note and appreciate the various reasons why it is good to affirm belief in the Gospel and the Catholic faith individually, to take responsibility for it. But, it does seem odd to me that such expression in the liturgy becomes individualistic just when we are supposed to be united together in a visible expression of our communion. Not only that, but it seems odd that the Church seems to be putting the instructions of faith (the catechism) and the expression of faith (the liturgy) into a seeming tension.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts. Peace.
    nate

  2. I versus We is a simple thing to me. People seem to forget that although elements of the mass or any worship service are communal in nature, ultimately we are directly engaging with the Lord. It shouldn’t matter if we are surrounded by fellow believers or all alone, it is about how I speak to God and how God might respond/listen/answer.

    Be grateful Tony — I’ve begun visiting different churches in Hollywood every week, just to absorb the differences and experience firsthand how faith is expressed. It has been an amazing journey, but something that troubles me is the focus many churches have on each other as opposed to God. I dropped by one Catholic church, and the difference between the mass and other more lax forms of Sunday worship is nearly infinite. I’ve been blogging about the goods and bads of each (I was kind to the Catholics, don’t worry). But there are worship services where they never read from the Bible, don’t mention Jesus, and there are no indications of Christianity (no cross, no alter) in the front of the house of worship — I don’t even know how to react in situations like that.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Hi Kevin,

      I have been following your journey via Facebook, though with the new job I haven’t had time to join in the discussion. I’m glad about what you’re doing; in fact, I’ll pray for you and your endeavor.

      St. Augustine once wrote, in one of my favorite phrases, that God’s beauty is “ever ancient, ever new.” If we forget about either one of those aspects, we’ve probably created an idol in our own image and lost sight of God…

      Peace,
      Tony

  3. Qualis Rex says:

    Anton,

    Very accurate and on-the-money. There is just nothing to “debate” in what you said. 40-odd years of mistranslation simply does not stack up against 2,000 of very clear syntax (in ALL conciliar languages). This was simply a blip in history (along with the whole “pro multis” mistranslation) and good riddance.

    Nathanial, a creed is like an affirmation or a pledge. I cannot attest to what you believe any more than you can attest to me. When it comes down to it, we are each individually responsible for our own salvation, as much as we would like to help, influence, guide or even simply wish it for others. For me, this is what the creed embodies; the narrative of belief necessary for salvation. It’s that powerful. And as salvation is purely an individual thing (I will not be judged by anyone’s sins other than my own) the “I believe” is most accurate.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Thank you, Qualis, although as I note in my reply to Nate, there are circumstances in which “We” has been used by councils.

      A case can be made for “We,” though ultimately, in the context of the liturgy, I think the case for “I” is stronger.

  4. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

    Hi Nate,

    Glad to have have you joining the discussion. First, I’d say that the tension you note is not necessarily a bad thing; there’s an element of both “I” and “We” in our faith, and we must maintain both of those elements without one ever drowning out the other.

    According to the Schall article, when the bishops at Nicea wrote the Creed, they used the plural, but publishing the Creed at that time was not a liturgical act. It was meant to be a statement of what the Catholic Church holds in order to distinguish the Catholic faith from heresy.

    I suspect that the reason the Church would use “I” in worship is to draw out the connection with baptism. If you think about how the liturgy evolved, the point when we recite the Creed would be about the point that non-baptized people would have been dismissed from the assembly — after the Liturgy of the Word and before the Liturgy of the Eucharist. (In at least some of the Eastern Rites a remnant of this practice can be seen in the exclamation “The doors! The doors!” Only the baptized were permitted to stay for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.)

    The difference between the two situations is something like this: the Council is in effect saying, “This is what we believe, and if you don’t believe it you are not a Catholic (Arius).” In Mass, we are in effect declaring, “This is what I believe, and so I am going to participate in the Eucharistic mystery.”

    You might say there’s a tension, but I also think both imply each other. Saying “I believe” implies “We believe,” because we don’t make up the Creed ourselves; we profess what Nicea proposes. But any community is made up of individuals, too, so the individual should never completely disappear. It is a question of subtle emphasis… but subtlety and nuance is important, especially in the liturgy.

    Hopefully one of the benefits of the new translations is that making the switch will make us think about some of these things.

    Peace,
    Tony

  5. Mike says:

    I just thought I’d let you know that whenever the priest says “The Lord be with you,” I’ve begun responding “And also with you and with your spirit.” I get funny looks from the people around me, but they’ll understand in December.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Ha! I can imagine… though one should generally try not to disturb one’s fellow worshippers, which is why we shouldn’t change the words to the responses on our own authority.

      So I’d say wait off on using the new responses until directed to do so by the priest in your parish. I’m eager to start using the new responses, too, but, as Scripture says, everything has it’s season…

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